Mesophotic Reef Ecosystems

CIOERT conducts research on mesophotic reef ecosystems in the southeastern United States, the Gulf of Mexico, and the southwest Florida shelf. These projects integrate broad surveys that characterize large-scale dimensions of reef habitat with detailed site studies to understand how individual reefs function. Large-scale studies include topics such as biodiversity and biogeography, geomorphology and structure, and genetic connectivity among reefs. Site-specific studies include connectivity between mesophotic and shallow reefs, coral dynamics and life histories, the effects of anthropogenic stress and climate change, and collecting data for fisheries and reef habitat management.

Accomplishments include:

  • Immediately following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, CIOERT deployed the R/V Seward Johnson and the Johnson-Sea-Link II to establish baseline data for coral health at mesophotic and deep coral reefs sites outside the area directly impacted by the spill, from the Florida Keys to the Panhandle.
  • The shallowest known Lophelia ecosystem in the U.S. was discovered at ~200 m off Jacksonville, FL; the southern-most living deep-water Lophelia reef in continental U.S. waters was discovered at 500 m off the Florida Keys; and a new Lophelia reef was discovered in SE Gulf of Mexico.
  • New deep coral sites with abundant commercially-important fish species were discovered along the East Coast of Florida. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council recommended expansion of the Oculina Habitat Area of Particular Concern based on these discoveries.
  • Photographic surveys at the Pulley Ridge deep reef habitat on the SW Florida shelf indicate a drastic loss in coral cover over the past 10 years, as well as an increase in coralline and leafy algal species.
  • Genetic characterization of mesophotic reefs throughout the Gulf of Mexico and tropical western Atlantic show that assemblages at Pulley Ridge are different from the related assemblages at Flower Garden Banks and the Dry Tortugas.